As regular readers of this blog will no doubt be aware, the Bosnia and Herzegovina national football side is one of our CSO’s more serious preoccupations; with the team representing the small, heart-shaped Balkan republic in genuine contention not merely for qualification but perhaps something rather special at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, this is even more the case than usual. It was therefore with great interest that we read a recent piece by the excellent Graham Ruthven in American Soccer Now, Lost in Sarajevo: A Soccer Writer’s Sad Confession (12th August 2013).
Ruthven’s article – which describes an eventful morning spent in the Bosnian capital in search of a United States squad that is scheduled to play their Bosnian counterparts later today – will bring a wry smile to any football journalist (present or former) who has been handed an assignment for which they have not been briefed. A cab ride to the wrong ground; an inability to locate the stadium entrance on arrival; sprinting towards the city centre in blind panic; all these occurrences will be more than recognisable to those of us in this most paradoxical of fields.
However, a number of fans – mostly, though not all, Bosnians – evidently did not appreciate the largely self-deprecating humour of Ruthven’s piece, seeing the composition as depicting Sarajevo (and by extension, Bosnia more generally) as backward, brutal and bizarre: a city of raw sewage, primeval stadia and meerschaum pipe-addicted locals. A veritable flood of comments to ASN followed, many accusing Ruthven of exhibiting an insulting insularity that typifies all too much American journalism. (Ruthven is, of course, Scottish.)
It is perhaps true that the author of Lost in Sarajevo could have been a bit better informed about his subject matter, but that contention is also missing the point. Ruthven is not there to write the definitive essay on the breakup of Yugoslavia; he is an honest and well-intentioned football journalist who happened to lose his way in a city he has never been to before. The excessively strong reaction to Ruthven’s piece can probably best be explained by three factors:
1. The Legacy of War. Many Bosnians have bitter memories of being judged unsympathetically by poorly-informed international journalists who were there to report on matters of historical import.
2. Perceived Sacrilege. The Bosnia and Herzegovina national team is the one cross-entity institution that unites Bosnians of all ethnicities. In this context, even making accurate observations about the foreboding condition of one of its two home stadiums can hurt some readers unexpectedly.
3. Things Suck. The best part of twenty years have passed since the cessation of hostilities in this part of the former Yugoslavia, yet administrative dysfunction and rampant corruption are perhaps more than ever the norm. Having someone allude to this – even very indirectly – can prompt many a sniping comment in return.